Review of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! on Broadway

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    April 10, 2019
    Review by:

    If you are looking for that sweet Oklahoma! where Aunt Eller spends her spare time churning butter on her porch and the corn IS as high as an elephant’s eye, well pardner, y’all better mosey right on by this trolley stop. Just to be sure you get this message before you sit down, there are 20 racks of rifles lining the walls of the Circle in the Square Theatre.

    In THIS story, Oklahoma is still Indian Territory on its way to becoming a state. It's being argued over by farmers and ranchers. Located in the dead center of the country and lying north of Texas, it was dry and flat. Home to dust storms and the dreaded dust bowl of the 1930’s, and a favorite stopping place for tornados looking for a home. (Dorothy’s Kansas is due north.) Life was rough and tough. You took nothing for granted.

    Director Daniel Fish has dusted off the original musical to reveal the skeleton of danger and the wind of tenacity. Curly McLain (Damon Daunno) has wandered in out of nowhere singing and strumming of possibility. The eye of his affection is Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones) who is a suspicious gal, never smiling, hiding her heart from marauders. Living in the same neck of the woods is the exact opposite couple: Will Parker (James Davis) and Ado Annie (Ali Stroker). Will is a simple happy fellow and Ado Annie takes a page out of Lois Lane’s book in Kiss Me, Kate! She is always true to whoever is right in front of her. There is another pair of opposites in the tale – the forlorn Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill) and the slippery peddler Ali Hakim (Will Brill). Overseeing all of this is the all-knowing Aunt Eller (Mary Testa) who knows what you are thinking before the thought arrives in your head.

    This is the core team. Everyone wears their hearts on their sleeves and serenades us in a countrified way, holding back on actually yodelling by a hair here and there. Each is in beautiful sync with the modest string orchestra (4 of the 9 are women!). For the most part the houselights are up full, so there is no place for us to hide. Twice we are dropped, inexplicably, into complete darkness where intimacy has its way with our imagination. Lights up - everything is in the open whether we like it or not. Blackout - everything is hidden. Them are the choices.

    Smack dab in the middle is the extraordinary performance by Gabrielle Hamilton – listed as the Lead Dancer in the program, but who is the only dancer – who performs a distilled version of the Agnes DeMille choreography. Wearing a glistening white tunic with DREAM BABY DREAM in large black letters on the front, she embodies every element of this story, from the horses to the fields to the heat that these characters give off.

    This is a tale laid bare on the table (and there are plenty of picnic tables to be had – some complete with chili and cornbread for the intermission). We are asked not to think but to grab onto the back of the wagon and pull ourselves up into its bed. The journey will be lumpy, but everyone there is asking you to come alone anyway. In the end, this will not be what you expected, but you may find yourself connected to these folks in a way you did not foresee.

    It is a bit of a theatrical ambush.

    (Photo courtesy of Little Fang Photo)

    "How is it that the coolest new show on Broadway in 2019 is a 1943 musical usually regarded as a very square slice of American pie? The answer arrives before the first song is over in Daniel Fish’s wide-awake, jolting and altogether wonderful production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, which opened on Sunday night at the Circle in the Square Theater."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "Fish’s vision treats Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 musical with deep respect, shining a hard light on its underlying issues of justice, violence and the autonomy of women. It ventures into rough territory and leaves the show in a brand-new state."
    Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

    "In director Daniel Fish’s pretentious production — which opened Sunday on Broadway, fresh from Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse — everything you cherish about this classic has been taken out behind the barn and shot, replaced by an auteur’s bag of tricks and a thesis on gun control and westward expansion. Here, the West was won by a culture of violence and toxic masculinity — what fun!"
    Johnny Oleksinski for New York Post

    "There's no denying the abundant pleasures to be had from a sumptuous large-scale revival of a classic American musical with a top-flight cast. But a bold reimagining of a familiar work from the canon can deliver an altogether different and far more startling thrill, bringing out unexpected textures and exposing previously subterranean thematic seams. The virtues of a revisionist production don't negate those of the traditional presentation, or vice versa. As the song says, "the farmer and the cowman should be friends." Purists will sniff anyway, but for audiences open to experiencing Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! from a fresh perspective, director Daniel Fish's probing revamp will be a revelation."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

    "It shouldn’t come as a surprise that director Fish has deconstructed this beloved warhorse (which was a groundbreaker in its own day, it should be remembered): Nowadays, I think they drum you out of the Directors Guild if you direct a classic the way it was written. The wonder of this production is that so much of the joy and optimism of the original work still shines bright through the darkness."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety